asylum seekers
Syrian refugees in London after they arrived from Calais via the “Safe Passage” legal route (Alamy Stock Photo)

On a warm afternoon last July, Ahmed went back in time. He and I exited the train at Hoylake, a middle-class seaside town near Liverpool, and walked past a Holiday Inn. The hotel had been his makeshift home for several weeks during the pandemic. With its smooth white walls, the building looked so generic it was hard to believe it contained such strong memories for the 26-year-old. But we weren’t stopping there, and instead continued on to a small red-brick church: the one place he’d felt truly accepted since leaving Sudan.

Ahmed was wearing a denim jacket and a beaming smile as he entered the church courtyard to greet his fellow asylum seekers – former residents of the hotel – and the volunteers who had helped them. “Beautiful boy! How are you?” one of the volunteers asked him as we arrived at the reunion. “I’m very well, everything is good, it’s good to see you after a long time!” he replied.

A total of 110 asylum seekers lived in Hoylake Holiday Inn between May 2020 and February 2021. There were trained doctors desperate to work during the pandemic, teachers unable to teach, teenagers hoping for a better start, civil servants, police officers, farmers, journalists, accountants, architects, artists – even a beekeeper.

Demand for hotels had dropped hugely during the pandemic, just as the asylum application system ground to a halt, meaning more accommodation was needed. Converting them into temporary housing for asylum seekers took advantage of this. There was also a public health rationale. The strategy was put in place to create “a safe environment to greatly reduce the spread of Covid-19,” in the words of Mears, a company who received a lucrative 10-year contract to run asylum accommodation in 2019.

By the summer of 2020, empty corridors and cobwebbed lobbies, abandoned by hotel guests, were once again full of people. Asylum seekers housed in hotel rooms climbed from 1,200 in March 2020 to 9,500 in October 2020, despite overall numbers of asylum applications to the UK falling significantly during the pandemic.

Kathy Vesey remembers the day they came to town. In May 2020, around two months after Covid-19 hit Britain, she saw a coach hulking through the locked-down streets of Hoylake. Vesey, who runs the charity A Heart 4 Refugees, discovered soon after that 46 asylum seekers had been placed in the Holiday Inn, directed by the private company Serco. There was no notice. The town had never hosted refugees before.

Vesey visited straightaway. She discovered they were all single men, many of them clearly suffering from PTSD. Several came straight from the Channel crossing, their T-shirts torn and dirty. Within 24 hours Vesey was soliciting clothing donations. And the food was dreadful. Muslims were served ham and pineapple pizza. “It was an own goal, really,” Jonny Brennan, a local pastor, told me. At lightning speed Vesey and a team of volunteers, including Brennan, organised a daily drop-in centre at Hoylake’s little red-brick church. They helped organise English lessons, signposted legal advice, and provided company and listening ears.

But despite some activities, and relationships forged between the walls of the hotel and the church, days at the Holiday Inn seemed to slow down time. Most asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their applications are being processed. The pandemic worsened this situation, with lockdown bringing about hotel curfews across the UK. People requesting asylum sat in their rooms, churning memories of harrowing experiences. “It exacerbates their poor mental health,” Vesey said.

At the reunion, Ahmed and others ate food, drank coffee and laughed about the hotel’s dire cooking. Everybody there had since moved on from “contingency” accommodation, like hotels, to “dispersed” housing scattered across the UK. Asylum seekers are given no choice over where they go and single people are often placed in flats with strangers. Even so, this feels to many like a step towards a more permanent home of their own.

But when it comes to gaining refugee status and the right to remain, progress seems to stall. The majority of former residents at the Hoylake Holiday Inn are yet to have their asylum assessment, Vesey said, even though many arrived in the country over a year ago. In February, there were 67,547 people in the queue for assessment in the UK and over 125,000 waiting for a decision or to be deported. Waiting can feel like its own kind of punishment.

Hotels became "detention-like facilities" for asylum seekers

Asylum seekers had been housed in hotels as early as September 2019, albeit in small numbers. The Home Office had awarded Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contracts (AASC) to three providers: Mears, Clearsprings and Serco. But the strategy only hit the news when the seriousness of the Covid-19 virus caused it to be rapidly scaled up. It quickly began attracting headlines for the wrong reasons.

In September, a study by Edinburgh Napier University found that thousands of asylum seekers had been housed in hotels that were often “detention-like facilities”. Far from the safe environment that was promised, the investigation found that hotels were hotbeds for the virus, which often circulated during crowded mealtimes. This was just one of a litany of woes experienced by people requesting asylum: haphazard safety protocols, crumbling buildings, miscommunication with staff and sometimes just 15 minutes’ notice when moving facilities for good. One woman was threatened with deportation, the study found, for refusing to throw her belongings away ahead of a transfer.

The key criticism was a detention-style lack of freedom – doors locked shut at 8pm, allowance abolished. The Home Office previously provided asylum seekers with a £39.63-a-week allowance, but for those moved into hotels, this was scrapped, the reasoning being that hotel inhabitants already had their meals provided. Frustration bubbled over. The glare of the media spotlight followed gruesome events, like a suicide and a stabbing in Glasgow in 2020, and then faded away.

Then came the far right. A video of a Britain First agitator outside Hoylake’s Holiday Inn circulated on right-wing Telegram chats. “Are you waiting for a house?” a man demands through a window. Only two days before, the same group had stormed Daresbury Park Hotel in Cheshire, livestreaming themselves banging on bedroom doors.

“There’s something which captures the imagination of the far right – boats crossing the Channel, the White Cliffs of Dover – and taps into all these notions of historical invasion,” Joe Mulhall, senior researcher at anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate, told me. The most dangerous part for Mulhall, though, is not the small-scale digital far right, but high-profile politicians who plaster hatred on YouTube or TV.

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage visited Hoylake in August 2020 as part of his “Farage Investigates” series, a so-called “exposing” of the hotel accommodation system that was viewed by millions. Before long the issue appeared on the BBC and Sky. “Nigel Farage is the key figure here,” Mulhall added. “He’s always been a useful bridge” between the niche far right and the centre right.

Many of the hotel’s residents were terrified. Khalid, a kind and optimistic 33-year-old from Sudan who was trafficked across Libya during the war in 2014, was one of them. “We felt unsafe,” he said. He had hoped the feeling of insecurity wouldn’t follow him to the UK.

Hoylake’s locals, meanwhile, appear to have been largely empathetic. A September 2020 protest by another far-right group, For Britain, drew only a meagre crowd, with Vesey saying most of them were out-of-towners. A patient and conciliatory mediator, she offered to speak to anyone in town who thought the asylum seekers shouldn’t be there.

Treacherous crossings and the Nationality and Borders Bill

But despite its many problems, for asylum seekers like Ahmed, Hoylake proved a sanctuary. Compared to the grime, fear and hunger that characterised his three months in the Calais “Jungle”, and his torturous life in Libya beforehand, he told me that having a bed, toilet, new clothes and supportive volunteers meant that “suddenly, your dreams changed within a few minutes”.

Ahmed had worked as a barber. He recovered from polio as a child and walks with a permanent limp. Arriving in Calais, a people-smuggler offered him a deal: cut my hair for three months, and you’ll cross at a discount. “I thought this guy was playing a game with me,” Ahmed said. Nevertheless, he started to cut the man’s hair. One day, on seeing his bad leg, an Iraqi man took pity on him and gave him 100 euros. The smuggler was satisfied with the fee. He instructed Ahmed to go to the beach at 9pm.

One glance at the waves and two of the 12 people who had gathered to cross fled. The remainder inflated the engine-propelled dinghy. “I’m not afraid to die in the Channel,” Ahmed recalls thinking as they launched into the cold dark water. “At least it’s better than to live so badly.” The Dover Strait is the world’s busiest naval highway. Ships plumped up big swells that lapped over the edges of the rubber vessel, causing panic. “Some of them start crying, some of us start praying,” Ahmed said. The men dug out saltwater shoe by shoe until, just after dawn broke, a British Border Force vessel rescued them and dragged the boat to Dover port.

Ahmed’s is a typical journey for asylum seekers in the UK. More than 28,000 people made the treacherous crossing last year, the most ever. “The reason why that’s happening is because there are no safe and legal routes to enter the UK to claim asylum,” Julia Savage, campaigns manager at north-west England charity, Asylum Matters, told me.

Vesey and organisations like Amnesty fear new legislation planned by the UK government will make future Channel crossings even more dangerous. The Nationality and Borders Bill has been criticised by charities, who say it will further criminalise refugees. Under the bill, people arriving by “irregular means” such as small boats will be granted fewer rights and face greater chance of deportation. Home Secretary Priti Patel has said it will “break the business model” of people-trafficking gangs across the Dover Strait and help clear the long backlog of asylum applications. But the UN said it would “penalise most refugees” and break international law.

“We consider it an anti-refugee bill,” said Savage. “You don’t crack down on the mafia by punishing the extorted.” She worries that rather than opening safer routes for asylum, the new legislation will lead to more incidents like the horrific, and preventable, drowning of 27 people in the Channel on 24 November 2021.

Operation Oak and "moving on"

In February last year, as lockdowns eased, Operation Oak kicked up a gear. This was the name given to the Home Office’s push to move all asylum seekers out of temporary contingency hotel accommodation and into dispersed accommodation by the end of 2021; here they would await their so-called “substantive interview”, in which the case for asylum is made – a process one minister said was designed to take place “as quickly as possible”.

But Operation Oak faltered. The number of asylum seekers living in hotels rose to around 25,000 in January, up from 1,200 in March 2020, when the pandemic hit.

Hoylake Holiday Inn now operates as a regular business again. Guests would never know their room may once have belonged to a refugee. But a new, more permanent asylum hotel was opened nearby by the Home Office last autumn, so Vesey and her band of 36 volunteers are still kept busy supporting the asylum seekers and pushing for better conditions. The High Court in 2020 ordered the Home Office to review its abolishment of the £39.63 allowance for hotel inhabitants. They are now paid £8 a week, which still doesn’t cover their basic daily needs.

“If someone wants to buy a toothbrush, they can’t,” Taulant Guma, who oversaw Edinburgh Napier’s project, told me. If they complain, they’re often threatened with deportation. This is how the UK’s “hostile environment’” system works, Guma said.

Ahmed now lives in a north-western city in England, in a shared house with other asylum seekers. As he’s no longer housed in a hotel, he said, his allowance has been raised back up to £39-a-week. “It’s not much but it’s great!” he told me. Yet 19 months after arriving he had still not had his substantive interview. Meanwhile, he misses his family. His younger brothers and sister, small children when he left, still live at home in Sudan. He calls regularly but the signal is bad. “Last time I spoke to them their voices were telling me, like–” He paused in sadness. “They’re growing up.”

As Ahmed waits, fighting away depression and traumatic memories from Libya and France, he thinks fondly of his time in Hoylake and the help of Vesey and other volunteers. “Kathy owns all their hearts,” Ahmed said. In this way, Vesey managed to bubble-wrap the corners of the hostile environment. She has weathered her own traumas, as a breast cancer survivor, said Clint Agard of Wirral Change. “She won’t let people go down. That’s what drives Kathy, keeping people’s spirits up.”

A small number of Hoylake’s guests have been luckier than Ahmed. Mohammed, 39, was granted refugee status in January last year. He stayed at the Holiday Inn for almost three months. Now he lives alone in a social housing flat in the north-west, studying English at college and volunteering for a frontline charity.

Mohammed left a government job in Algeria and fled to England in 2019, after he was arrested for being gay. When the Home Office granted him refugee status, Mohammed felt a feeling wash over him “of freedom and living as me without restrictions or fear of anyone”. He dreams of moving to London, to live near friends and the LGBT scene. “I’m not happy 100 per cent,” he said, “but I’m good.”

In dispersed housing in London, Khalid keeps himself busy. Days he spends improving his English, evenings he runs or cooks in his temporary flat. An Arsenal fan, on Sundays he guards the defensive line playing football. But trapped in an uncertain, workless limbo familiar to all asylum seekers, most of his hours are spent waiting for his Home Office substantive interview, just as he has been waiting now for well over a year.

The last time I spoke to Khalid, he’d just dipped into his weekly allowance to buy pasta, bread and beans for a leaving party. Four days before, after an elongated wait, a friend had ripped open a letter from the Home Office telling him he was moving facilities by the weekend. It was time to say goodbye. The feeling in the room, he said, was not quite sadness. In a transient life, farewells are curt. “You make a friend somewhere, you spend good time with them, then they change to other friends,” Khalid told me. “We’re used to that.” Perhaps there will be a reunion, like Hoylake’s, down the line.

But by now, Khalid knows the rhythms of asylum liminality. “I’m here, but tomorrow I could get transferred to another place,” he said. “You can’t make any plans for tomorrow. You just wait.”

This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2022 edition. Subscribe here.